13-17 October 2025, Ostend (Belgium): 8th International Congress for Underwater Archaeology (IKUWA 8). “Telling the Exciting Tales of our Past”

Marnix Jacques Pieters
Flanders Heritage Agency and Scientific and Technical Advisory Board of the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the protection of the underwater cultural heritage

That the abbreviation of the International Congress for Underwater Archaeology is IKUWA may at first glance be somewhat puzzling. However, when you look at the history of IKUWA, it becomes immediately evident that that ‘K’ refers to the fact that the congress started as a German initiative: Internationaler Kongress für UnterWAsserarchäologie. Indeed, IKUWA 1 was organized as IKUWA 99 by DEGUWA (Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Unterwasserarchäologie) together with seven German partner organisations in February 1999 in Sassnitz on the German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea (Lübke et al 1999). The strategic goal of the Sassnitz meeting was ‘to create a long-term network of all European bodies dealing with underwater archaeology’. As a consequence, organisations from five European countries became partners in the organisation of the event in Sassnitz. The resulting initiative was, therefore, not only German, but also European from the very beginning. As such, it could also benefit from support from the European Union.

Very early on, the IKUWA initiative turned from a European perspective to a global one. It joined forces with UNESCO, whose 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was going to enter into force in 2009, after the ratification of the 20th member state to the Convention. The global scope of the IKUWA Conferences became very visible with the organization of IKUWA 6 in Fremantle (Western Australia) in 2016. This was the first IKUWA conference to be organized outside of Europe.

The themes chosen for the eight conferences refer to the needs, strengths and opportunities of underwater and maritime archaeology: Protection of Cultural Heritage Underwater (IKUWA 1, Sassnitz 1999), A New Interpretation of History (IKUWA 2, Zürich 2004), Beyond Boundaries (IKUWA 3, London 2008), Managing the Underwater Cultural Heritage (IKUWA 4, Zadar 2011), Heritage for Humanity (IKUWA 5, Cartagena 2014), Celebrating our Shared Heritage (IKUWA 6, Fremantle 2016), Delivering the Deep (IKUWA 7, Helsinki 2022) and Telling the Exciting Tales of our Past (IKUWA 8, Ostend 2025). The six years between Fremantle and Helsinki were an unforeseen consequence of the COVID pandemic that obliged our Finnish colleagues to reschedule the conference from 2020. When looking to these eight themes, we can observe a shift away from the object or the physical towards the value of the object for global society.

Twenty-five years on, we are glad to observe that the 1999 initiative reached far beyond its original ambitions. The network has become global and the focus has widened from underwater archaeology and its technicalities to all aspects related to maritime and underwater archaeology, including the values of heritage and heritage research for society. The experts who took the first steps to organize the original conference that marked the start of such a successful series of events should be congratulated!

In general, the IKUWA conferences attract between 200 and 300 participants. While this may not be so impressive for colleagues used to participating in EAA Annual Meetings and their several thousands of participants, these low numbers of participants reflect the perceived ‘niche-character’ of IKUWA and the widespread belief among archaeologists that underwater and maritime archaeology are research fields that are very technical and so specific as to be only relevant for the experts themselves. Nothing can be farther from the truth! On the contrary, maritime and underwater archaeology have a lot to offer, thanks to several assets not available to what one might call ‘land-archaeology’.

The low numbers of scientists who class themselves as maritime and/or underwater archaeologists has the advantage that we tend to know the majority of our colleagues personally. This is largely thanks to the yearly 2001 Convention meetings (State Parties every two years and STAB—Scientific and Technical Advisory Body—for this convention every year which generally occur in Paris at UNESCO headquarters) as well as the network established by the ICOMOS Scientific Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage (ICUCH) and—last but not least—thanks to conferences like IKUWA and ISBSA (International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology), which has been organized since 1976.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the successful IKUWA conferences. We will celebrate this anniversary by launching the ‘Call for Sessions’ for the IKUWA 8 conference to be held in Ostend (Belgium) from 13 to 17 October 2025. The conference will be hosted in ‘De Grote Post’ (literally ‘The Big Post-office’). De Grote Post is a very special building in Ostend: a pearl of post-war modernist architecture designed by architect Gaston Eysselinck. The architect provided the building with a progressive design using the best possible materials, giving this unique place its own soul. You could feel it when the building served as a post and telephone centre, and you can still sense the timeless spirit of connection now that the building is a cultural hub. Both the building and the location provide the perfect atmosphere for a conference right in the centre of Ostend. More information on ‘De Grote Post’ (including a video tour of the venue) can be found on the Meet in Ostend website. Curious to see what else the city has in store for you, aside from art, history, shopping and Ostend’s renowned grey shrimp croquettes? Check out Ostend’s tourist website.

In Ostend in October 2025, we aim to present the state of investigation of maritime and underwater archaeology: to take into consideration the latest developments and insights without losing sight of the accomplishments of previous decades. We hope to contribute in this way to the establishment of a roadmap for maritime and underwater archaeology for the coming years, building up to 2030. This roadmap is driven by three types of goals: scientific goals (the core of our business as scientists), the goals of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and goals related to raising awareness of underwater and maritime archaeological heritage and its values. Thus, special emphasis will be put on the ways that we as a scientific community communicate our ideas and findings to the public at large and, thus, meet the needs of society today – in other words, how we tell the exciting tales of our past. We should not underestimate the fact that archaeological heritage is in general barely visible; underwater archaeological heritage is even more so. In the following, I will detail (in a non-exhaustive and highly selective manner) some of the important trends in the fields of maritime and underwater archaeology. The intent here is to bring your attention to some developments that may have been missed, or to pique your interest if this is a new area for you.

A very important milestone in underwater and maritime archaeology was the 1978 publication of Maritime Archaeology by the late Keith Muckelroy. Muckelroy devoted a lot of research and energy to the analysis and understanding of the genesis and evolution of shipwreck sites in the underwater environment. Even today, his book continues to be a valuable reference. Thirty years after this milestone publication, Gibbs wrote an interesting study of cultural site formation processes (Gibbs 2006). Still, the formation processes of submerged sites continued to be a hot research topic, as demonstrated by the book edited by Keith (2016), with a specific chapter devoted to cultural site formation processes affecting shipwrecks and shipwreck mishap sites (Gibbs and Duncan 2016).

The scope of maritime and underwater archaeology was hugely expanded by Westerdahl (1992) when the author produced strong arguments for a holistic approach to maritime remains on land as well as maritime remains underwater, at sea or in other bodies of water. Two concepts accompanied this new approach: ‘maritime cultural landscape’ and ‘mariculture’, the latter understood to be a variant of agriculture. The field of maritime landscapes has, like the field of formation processes of submerged wreck sites, received quite a lot of research attention during the last decades. First of all, there is the book edited by Ford (2011) that took stock of the study of maritime cultural landscapes nearly two decades after Westerdahl’s paper. The SPLASHCOS-project (Submerged Prehistoric Archaeology and Landscapes of the Continental Shelf), a research network sponsored by the European Commission (2009-2013), delivered impressive outputs and several key-publications (Bailey et al. 2017, Fisher and Pedersen 2018, Bailey et al. 2020). These expanded our knowledge and understanding of drowned landscapes, palaeolandscapes, and related features drastically. For instance, Flemming (2017) calculated that we know of about 3000 submerged prehistoric archaeological sites on the continental shelf worldwide. More than half of these sites (+1500) are located in the southwest Baltic. In addition, there are no know sites between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, nor are there any in Antarctic waters (Flemming 2017). These are thought-provoking numbers!

Let us return to shipwrecks: more specifically, to metal shipwrecks from the late 19th and 20th centuries. An important subgroup of these more recent shipwrecks are the result of damages taken during the first and second World Wars, and should theoretically be dealt with as would any other underwater archaeological site. The 2001 Convention, however, only extends ‘heritage value’ to shipwrecks or shipwreck sites which have been underwater for 100 years or more. While we are aware that the 100-year cut-off date is the result of negotiations between the different stakeholders for the 2001 Convention, this makes no sense from an archaeological viewpoint. For WWI underwater heritage, archaeological and heritage values are firmly accepted by the different stakeholders. Together with Flanders and Bruges, UNESCO organized a well-attended scientific conference in 2014 devoted to underwater cultural heritage from WWI (Guérin et al. 2014). In 2018, the German National Committee for Monument Protection, the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Flanders Heritage Agency jointly organized an Underwater Cultural Heritage Forum in Berlin about WWI underwater cultural heritage as a closing conference on underwater cultural heritage for the centenary (Tell and Pieters 2022). Today, providing the same protective measures and approach to underwater heritage from WWII remains an important challenge, especially considering the negative aspects linked to recent shipwrecks.

For example, shipwrecks from the late 19th and 20th centuries also present serious environmental challenges wherever they are found. This is mainly due to the advanced corrosion of their steel hulls (after being at least 80 years underwater) that can lead to the structural collapse of the wreck sites, as well as the dangers linked to petroleum cargos and/or fuel still aboard. Some successful removals of oil remaining on shipwrecks have occurred, such as was the case with the USS Mississinewa (Gilbert et al. 2003). However, such instances are few and far between. Besides petroleum cargos and fuel leaks, these wrecks frequently have ammunition, explosives and ordnance aboard which can also leak toxic substances into the environment.

The fact that most of these sites have heritage value (see above) or should be considered as wet graves – and, in many cases, as war graves – complicates the situation even further. The question which arises is how to deal with these wrecks in a way that preserves the environment, takes due consideration of their heritage value and also accounts for any potential wet graves. A European project by the name of North Sea Wrecks (NSW 2018-2023) looked at the pollution risk of ammunition aboard historic shipwrecks from both World Wars in the North Sea and the Baltic. The project put together a travelling exhibition that explained the project’s research results in ways that stressed the urgency of taking action in the community of decision makers.

Closely linked to 20th century shipwreck sites with toxic and poisonous cargos aboard are munition dumpsites. Until the mid-20th century, some countries in the North Sea and Baltic region systematically dumped unexploded ammunition at sea. The idea behind this was, effectively, that the problem was ‘solved’ when it was out of sight. The ‘Paardemarkt’ site in the Belgian territorial sea is a famous example of one such dumpsite; it contains ammunition mainly from WWI and includes an unknown number of shells containing mustard gas (Missiaen 2008).

Legal issues also remain at the centre of the debate, especially regarding underwater archaeology if valuable goods such as gold, silver and even pre-nuclear steel or lead are involved. Treasure hunters are never far away. Besides the pecuniary concerns, theoretical issues such as a “verifiable link” (Maarleveld 2014) or “in situ preservation as the first option” (Aznar 2018) continue to be discussed from a legal perspective. Such “in situ preservation” is also debated from a heritage management viewpoint, as shown by several contributions by various colleagues in the recent ICOMOS Heritage at Risk special edition by ICUCH (Hafner et al. 2022).

The number of countries that have ratified the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the protection of underwater cultural heritage since its adoption by the general assembly is growing. Unfortunately, that growth is slow. The ratification especially of European and Asian countries remains a challenge. At the moment, 76 countries are state parties to this convention. The effective and efficient protection of underwater cultural heritage worldwide (e.g. in international waters) is not possible without global—or nearly global—ratification.

Luckily, there are also some exciting opportunities alongside these issues. An important and stimulating factor in maritime and mainly in underwater archaeology are the many advances in technology. For example, in the field of survey techniques and detection are the tremendous possibilities linked to the increased use and capabilities of autonomous vessels (see Figure 9) and remotely operated vessels (see Figure 10). These advances allow projects to study difficult sites such as that of the Danton, a pre-dreadnought class French warship lying about 1000 m deep in the Mediterranean Sea (L’Hour 2022).

Besides the technological advances vital to underwater archaeology, developments in other fields such as DNA also boost maritime and underwater archaeology. The discovery of wheat DNA at the submerged site of Bouldner Cliff is a perfect illustration of this; analysis showed the presence of wheat in the British Isles 2000 years prior to the documented introduction of agriculture (Smith et al. 2015).

Figure 9. An AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vessel) of the Flanders Marine Institute at work in Ostend. When carrying a Multibeam Echosounder, AUVs can make high-resolution images of sites located in areas which are not otherwise accessible. Photo by Marnix Pieters.

Figure 10. Demonstration of a ROV (remote operated vessel) within the context of a 2019 meeting of the state parties of the 2001 Convention. Demonstration showed the sampling capacity of a remotely operated vessel developed by DRASSM (Département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines du ministère de la Culture de la France). Photo by Marnix Pieters.

To conclude this brief review of some of the topics currently under discussion in the fields of maritime and underwater archaeology, I would like to recommend a recently published book entitled Underwater and Coastal Archaeology in Latin America (Elkin and Delaere 2023). This book is a perfect illustration of the progress made in the field of maritime and underwater archaeology over the last few decades by the discipline’s deliberate integration of maritime remains on land with maritime remains underwater, as originally advocated by Westerdahl in 1992. Every ‘land archaeologist’ should also read this stimulating collection of 29 papers which together give an excellent overview of the results that can be reached by combining underwater sources with sources on land and by bringing new insights and ideas to bear on the field of maritime and underwater archaeology. Although the title of the book seems to suggest that this is a niche publication only useful for colleagues dealing with the maritime world, this is not at all the case. The volume convincingly proves that archaeological research results – in whatever specific field – have global value.

Time to return to IKUWA 8 in Ostend in 2025! Besides a state of investigation of maritime and underwater archaeology in 2025 and a roadmap for the next years leading up to 2030, we hope to offer participants several interesting visits: the archaeological sites of the medieval ports of Bruges (Trachet 2016) as well as Bruges itself, the archaeological site of the deserted medieval fishing village in Raversijde (Tys and Pieters 2009), the well-preserved portions of the Atlantikwall in Raversijde and Ostend, the exceptional Napoleonic coastal fortress in the dunes of Ostend and the three-masted training ship Mercator built in 1932, which today sits in one of Ostend’s harbour docks. As you can see, Ostend as a venue offers plenty to be excited about!

I hope to have convinced EAA Members that maritime and underwater archaeology is not a niche field only of interest to maritime diehards, and I look forward to meeting many of you in Ostend in October 2025. You can leave your email-address on the conference website, so we can keep you posted on the upcoming conference. See you there!

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